The Cable

White House Blasts New Iran Sanctions as "March to War"

In its most forceful language to date, the White House and State Department blasted Congressional efforts to place new sanctions on Iran as delicate negotiations continue on the country's nuclear program. Without mincing words, U.S. officials warned that spoiling diplomatic talks with Iran would be a "march to war."

"It is important to understand that if pursuing a resolution diplomatically is disallowed or ruled out, what options, then, do we and our allies have to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon?" said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. "The American people do not want a march to war."

In a separate briefing at the State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki drove home the point. "Putting new sanctions in place would be a mistake while we're still determining a diplomatic route forward," she said. 

For weeks, administration officials have depicted hawks in Congress as "very effective" and "important partners" in levying sanctions against the Islamic Republic. But now, as Iran and six world powers near a potentially historic nuclear deal in Geneva -- one that Secretary of State John Kerry said is "extremely close" to completion -- the administration is ramping up its opposition to new sanctions. 

The urgent push makes sense, says Bob Einhorn, who recently left the State Department as its Iran arms control envoy. "Additional sanctions are unnecessary and could put us in a more difficult spot," he told The Cable. "It would play into the arguments of Iranian hardliners that the U.S. isn't interested in a nuclear deal. It would also have the broader international impact of portraying us in a less reasonable light than the Iranians and thereby eroding support for sanctions."

Einhorn, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said losing international support for sanctions carries substantial risk. "The sanctions that are now hurting Iran are not those imposed by the United States but by other countries," he said. " The Chinese, the Indians, the Turks, the South Koreans, and the Japanese: All of them have participated in this sanctions regime because they believed it was necessary to pressure the Iranians to negotiate seriously. If it now looks like we're not negotiating seriously, we can expect support for sanctions to erode."

On Wednesday, Kerry will urge members of the Senate Banking Committee to slam the brakes on a new round of sanctions against Iran already passed in the House of Representatives. But convincing lawmakers, including a sizeable cohort of Democrats, is proving difficult.

In recent months, many liberals have voiced support for placing additional sanctions on Iran, such as Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa), Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.).

On Monday, Israel told The Cable now is not the time to wait. "I think the Senate should take it up," said Israel, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "The House has done its work. There is no deal. And in the absence of a deal we have to sustain pressure. The U.S. Senate shouldn't cede that pressure through inaction."

Meanwhile, the administration is unlikely to pick up much support from Republicans who have long been critical of its engagement with Iranian's newly-elected moderate President Hassan Rouhani. "We're very concerned that in their desire to make any deal that they may in fact do something that is very bad for our country," said Senator Bob Corker, the most senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "We think that is the greater threat to our country right now."

A key vote to watch will be Senator Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, who remains on the fence. A committee aide tells The Cable the senator won't declare his position until Wednesday at the earliest. "Members of the Banking Committee are going to be briefed on the Geneva negotiations by Secretary of State Kerry," said the aide," and Chairman Johnson will not make a decision on additional sanctions until he has had a chance to consult with his colleagues following the briefing."

The Cable

Senate to Start Sweeping Intel Review This Month

Back in October, the embattled National Security Agency seemed to lose one of its staunchest allies when Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, suddenly promised "a major review into all intelligence collection programs." Almost immediately, former intelligence officials and some congressional Republicans expressed doubts about whether Feinstein seriously intended to take on the intelligence agencies, or whether she was attempting to deflect from the committee's own lack of awareness of the extent of the NSA's vast surveillance programs.

For the first time, however, details have emerged about the scope and duration of the review. It will include not only an examination of how the agencies collect information, but how senior government officials direct those activities.

A Senate aide told The Cable that the review will proceed in two stages. The first stage, which will begin before Thanksgiving, will examine "how the [intelligence community] receives orders" about what subjects they should be paying attention to. That will be followed by what the aide described as "a longer stage" that will examine how the agencies structure their programs to collect information on those subjects. The entire review is expected to take nine months.

"Bottom line: Folks should not be skeptical," the aide told The Cable.

In her statement in October, Feinstein said a full review was necessary "so that members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are fully informed as to what is actually being carried out by the intelligence community." She said she was "totally opposed" to spying on foreign leaders and that the oversight body had not been "satisfactorily informed" about NSA surveillance.

By definition, any review of all intelligence collection programs could include not just the NSA but the CIA, numerous Defense Department and military intelligence agencies, and elements of the FBI. The last time the intelligence community was subjected to an expansive congressional review of its operations was during hearings chaired by Sen. Frank Church and Rep. Otis Pike in the mid-1970s. They investigated illegal activities at the NSA, CIA, and the FBI, including spying on political activists and U.S. government officials. The so-called Church-Pike hearings led to legal restrictions on intelligence agency activities inside the United States or directed at Americans overseas. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which governs NSA spying on Americans, resulted from the hearings.

If the revelations of NSA spying result in another major round of intelligence hearings in Congress, it could be the most pronounced and significant effect of the Snowden leaks. But important details about how the new inquiry will be conducted remain unclear. One former U.S. official questioned whether the committee even has enough staff members to launch a broad review, considering that many of them are already working on investigations into how former NSA contractor Edward Snowden disclosed thousands of pages of classified agency documents, and the operational consequences of those leaks. "They're working cheek to jowl over there," the former official said, crammed into the committee's relatively small classified offices.

Feinstein has acknowledged that, owing to cuts imposed by budget sequestration, the intelligence committee staff has been reduced in number. But she said she plans to hire additional staff members to work on the review, which she has said will include hearings.

Not everyone had been convinced that Feinstein's promise to investigate the intelligence agencies was more bark than bite. A former senior intelligence official recently told The Cable that he believed the inquiry would be wide-ranging and would uncover more controversial programs that will embarrass the intelligence agencies.

And following Feinstein's initial statement about NSA spying in October, some intelligence officials were fearful for their future, now that Feinstein appeared to break from her generally strong support of agency operations. "We're really screwed now," an NSA official said at the time. "You know things are bad when the few friends you've got disappear without a trace in the dead of night and leave no forwarding address."

Feinstein is perhaps an unlikely defender of the country's biggest intelligence agency. A former San Francisco mayor, she hails from the home base of many of the NSA's biggest critics, including civil liberties activists groups, political progressives, and Silicon Valley technology companies.

"She's put herself at odds somewhat from her natural constituency," said a former intelligence official. "I think she knows she put herself out on a limb defending the NSA, and she'd like a little cooperation in return." The former official, like others who've been following Feinstein's recent evolution, said she is smarting from embarrassing disclosures about NSA spying from Snowden, which have raised questions about the thoroughness of intelligence committee's oversight.

In the House of Representatives, the chairman of the intelligence committee has said that if lawmakers didn't know what the NSA was up to, they've only themselves to blame. At a hearing in October about whether to modify current surveillance law, a clearly frustrated Rep. Mike Rogers all but admitted that the NSA had revealed to members of his committee the details of an operation that targeted the personal communications of as many as 35 foreign heads of state and government.

Rogers said the committee is privy to large amounts of information on U.S. spying, including a list of priority intelligence topics that is approved and modified by the president and his advisers and sets out parameters of U.S. intelligence gathering. Committee members have access to "sources and methods" of spying, as well as "mounds of material" about the fruits of spying, Rogers said.